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The Problem with Plush: Oxford’s Disappearing Queer Scene

TW: contains discussion of hate crimes, especially anti-trans violence

Navigating the world as a queer person is exhausting. In every new situation, when meeting any new person, just walking down the street, you have to evaluate your environment and decide how you’re going to present yourself. Who are you going to be at this moment? Coming out is a constant process. It encompasses split-second decisions about which pronouns to use when referring to your partner, as well as the tear-jerking moments that make straight allies cry in movies – cue Mary Lambert’s “Same Love” playing in the background. There is a baseline level of anxiety that accompanies being publicly queer because we are reminded constantly that our safety could be threatened at any moment, even in a famously liberal city like Oxford. This anxiety is heightened even more for the transgender and gender non-conforming members of our community, especially queer and trans people of colour. Stonewall UK’s 2017 Trans Report found that two in five trans people (41 percent) and three in ten non-binary people (31 percent) had experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the 12 months leading up to the study. Here in Oxford, 63% of trans students claim to have experienced transphobia or discrimination since coming to Oxford, with 83% having faced discrimination from their fellow students, 29% from academic staff, according to the SU’s 2018 Trans report. For many cisgender and heterosexual people, these statistics will – and should – be shocking, but these are facts that the LGBTQ+ community is painfully aware of. 

This is why safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people are so important. Fear of homophobic or transphobic abuse and violence are heightened when alcohol and drugs are involved, and much of the community simply don’t feel safe in mainstream clubs. Beyond outside threats, mental health issues among the LGBTQ+ community are widespread. We need safe havens where we can dance, drink, try to pull, without feeling like every move we make is a political act. This need is compounded by being in a university setting, where it seems like opportunities for social activism are everywhere and there is a constant pressure to be active in the fight to advance our rights. And yet places of respite simply are not being provided to us. 

Spend any time around groups of LGBTQ+ folk in Oxford, and it won’t take long to hear complaints about the state of Plush, the venue which claims to be ‘Oxford’s Premiere LGBTQ+ Bar & Club’. Technically, this is true: Plush is Oxford’s only LGBTQ+ Bar & Club. Providing a welcoming space for an entire community is a great deal of responsibility for one venue to take on, unfortunately, it is a responsibility that Plush is not equipped to take on. It is important to note here that for many queer people in Oxford, Plush is the closest thing to a safe space that we have ever experienced. There is no doubt that a less than adequate bar which is at least trying to cater to us is better than having absolutely no spaces provided at all. However, having had nothing before doesn’t mean we deserve less now, and we owe it to each other and to future members of this community to work for things to be better.

What exactly is Plush doing wrong? The accusation thrown most often at the club is that its patrons tend to include a large number of cisgender and heterosexual (cishet) people. This in itself isn’t the problem; there arguably isn’t a gay bar in the country which isn’t frequented by some cishet people, and due to the relatively small size of the LGBTQ+ community it’s unlikely that the queer scene would survive without custom from some people from outside of it. The issue arises when the presence of cishet people begins to outweigh that of LGBTQ+ folk and the club begins catering to this demographic rather than the one it claims to be for. Feminine presenting queer women begin to be regularly hit on and harassed by men, LGBTQ+ couples begin to feel uncomfortable displaying affection towards each other for fear of backlash, and gender non-conforming people often begin to become uncomfortable in the space altogether. Cishet people who frequent Plush, as well as similar establishments, might argue that no-one who is actively homophobic would plan a night out to a gay bar. In a large part, this is true. But the issue is not individual straight people, rather the culture created by their overwhelming presence in queer spaces. As queer people, we have been conditioned our entire lives to be wary around those outside of the community – and for good reason – so in venues crowded by cisgender and heterosexual people, our automatic response is to alter our behaviour and to be on the alert. 

Plush can’t ban cishet people from entering. That would be exclusionary, extreme and unnecessary. It is also important to make clear that there are people within the LGBTQ+ community who identify as straight, and Plush is just as much for these people as it is for cisgender gay people. However, Plush needs to put in the work to ensure that people entering the venue recognise that they are guests in a queer space and should be considerate of this the entire time they are there. It should be the responsibility of the club itself, and the cishet people who have been invited to join, to be aware of how they can make the venue as comfortable as possible for the people who need it most. In Plush’s current iteration, it is members of the LGBTQ+ community who are being forced to watch our backs and alter our behaviour in a space that is meant to be for us. 

I reached out to Plush for their response to these criticisms, and they made a point of specifying that “Since its inception, Plush has been solely owned and directed by members of the LGBTQ+ community. The venue was founded to provide a safe atmosphere predominantly for the LGBTQ+ community, whilst welcoming all patrons who share our values and respect our culture”. This statement, interestingly enough, is made verbatim in the postscript of all emails from the nightclub, as well as in the description on their website. It’s disheartening to seek out confirmation that a venue has your community’s best interests at heart, only to be confronted by what feels like a – admittedly very well crafted – corporate cop-out. 

However, Plush did explain that when training its staff “the venue has found especially helpful the materials provided by the Good Night Out campaign, materials provided and used by the OU LGBTQ+ Society, the LGBTQ+ Campaign, and the Oxford University Student Union, and–very importantly–the longstanding experience of both the venue and its management.” Not all employees are likely to be well versed in the language and culture of the LGBTQ+ community and that’s okay. However, when the purpose of your job is to ensure the safety of a group for whom terminology is often so important, proper training is invaluable. This is a good start. It is especially important that the community is being listened to and that resources that have been specifically recommended by LGBTQ+ campaigners are being used.

Plush claims to “pride itself on its reputation for a safe and aggression-free environment where incidents of any nature are extremely rare”, but just a cursory glance at the reviews on the club’s Facebook page suggest this might not actually be the case. Even so, the most we as queer people are entitled to expect from a night out shouldn’t be respect for our physical safety.

All the more, an environment in which protections are put in place to ensure incidents of harassment don’t happen is not the same as one which is safe or aggression free. Microaggressions, like being stared at for showing affection as a queer couple or for dancing as a gender non-conforming person, can be just as damaging as verbalised abuse. 

Plush considers the fact that it “always dramatically exceeds the number of door staff required and has a far greater number of staff-per-head than most late-night venues” to be a selling point. Oftentimes though, it can be the bouncers themselves who make patrons feel unsafe. There is a bouncer stationed in the toilets at all times. There are bouncers roaming the dancefloor at all times. These bouncers are almost exclusively male, and as a femme woman whose life experience has taught me to feel wary of men, it’s difficult to allow myself the freedom to have fun in a space like that. To add to this, The Oxford Student recently reported that Plush’s bouncers had been accused of violence against two female customers and of failing to remove sex attackers from the venue. According to the club’s management “anyone who feels uncomfortable with a situation … is encouraged to report the matter immediately to a member of our staff or door team, both of which are trained to ensure the matter is dealt with in the most appropriate way.” This is all well and good, but when so many patrons of Plush have encountered overzealous or aggressive door staff, it is difficult to feel like you can rely on them in vulnerable moments. 

I love being queer. I love feeling like a part of this community. I believe that we owe it to ourselves and to each other to build the safest of safe spaces for all LGBTQ+ people. So what needs to change? 

Firstly: Cishet people, please don’t come to Plush unless explicitly invited by a member of the community. When in the venue, remember that you are being welcomed into a space that we desperately need, and make an active effort to be thoughtful and respectful. 

Secondly: Managers of Plush, please stop stationing a bouncer in the toilets. It’s a wonderful thing that the facilities in Plush are gender-neutral, but a lot of the good that this does is suddenly undone when a member of staff is present in what is already an extremely small room. The photographers in the club need to stop taking pictures of people making out. Not only is this invasive, but there are patrons of Plush for whom it would be extremely damaging to have pictures of them with someone of the same gender floating around on Facebook. It could run the risk of them being outed or facing harassment online or at home. We need more specific events for groups under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Nights specifically catered to queer women and non-binary people like the yearly Cake Collective, for example, demonstrate to the queer people of Oxford that this space does, in fact, prioritise our needs. 

Plush is listening. A form has been circulating allowing the club’s customers to provide feedback about what’s working and what isn’t a year after Plush’s move to its new location. This is a sincerely encouraging step in the right direction. It shows that despite the complaints leveled at the venue, ultimately its management is committed to the task of providing a comfortable space for the queer community. I am and will continue to be, a pretty regular visitor to Plush. This article isn’t a takedown or a call to arms for all LGBTQ+ folk and allies to take their pitchforks to Plush. It’s just a very long-form way of saying that I’m tired, just like so many members of the queer community. I am tired of feeling like I have to look over my shoulder before holding a girl’s hand in public, of thinking about the way I sit and the way I phrase things in case they ‘give me away’ in new situations, of my existence being a political statement. LGBTQ+ people in Oxford deserve to be able to feel free somewhere. If Plush is claiming to be that space, then we need to step up and ask them to mean it.

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